The bubble tea mania is taking Japan by storm. The global market of bubbles was estimated at US$1.89 billion in 2017 and has an expected growth rate of 8.5 percent in the next 5 years. The number of registered boba chains in Japan tripled to 60 in the last 4 years and imported over 6,300 tons of tapioca.

But Taiwan has many more culinary treats that are starting to captivate foodies around the globe, especially those in Japan. Specialty shops serving up Taiwanese deserts, including tofu pudding, herbal jelly, and shaved ice, have sprung up in Japan in the past few years. The growing popularity of Taiwanese sweets is propelled by their Instagram appeal and claims of lower fat and sugar levels combined with a variety of tropical fruits.

Media analysts predicted that Taiwanese desserts will continue to trend in Japan, with previously unknown snacks put forth by both Japanese firms as well as Taiwanese firms.


Tokyo Mamehana Kobo

Tokyo Mamehana Kobo is a popular Taiwanese dessert store in Tokyo, Japan.

The growing interest in Taiwanese desserts gave rise to a more solid concept of “Taiwanese cuisine” in Japan, distinguishing itself from the umbrella of “Chinese cuisine.” The popular appreciation of not only bubble tea, but also Taiwanese-style noodles, soy milk, and even fried rice, has made it possible for an increasing number of shops to make a living out of serving specialty Taiwanese dishes. The idea of an independent Taiwanese cuisine has been further cemented as the Japanese public has chosen Taiwan as the number one foreign vacation destination for the past six years.

Similarly, in the United States, Taiwanese dishes were often lumped in with the big denominator of “Chinese food” until Taiwanese beef noodle soup started making waves in New York City last year. The beloved beef noodle soup is widely considered the unofficial national dish of Taiwan — there’s even an annual festival in Taiwan where local chefs try to outdo each other.

Long before the new interest in Taiwanese food, bubble tea has captured the hearts of many urban Americans, but it has yet to become a fixture in Japan. Japanese media noted a “third wave” tapioca interest after those in 1992 and 2008. Researchers remarked the two previous waves waned with economic fortunes, respectively due to the bursting of the Japanese bubble economy and the 2008 global financial crisis.

The sensitivity of bubble tea sales to economic downturns suggests that a coronavirus-induced economic crisis could flatten the wave of tapioca mania. The possible backlash against bubble tea could further escalate by a growing public concern toward the large amount of trash generated by the single-use containers and straws. Should the bubble tea trend subside in Japan, Taiwanese cuisine could remain a permanently acquired taste for Japanese consumers.


Photo Credit: CNA

Taipei's beef noodle soup competition in 2019

For a unique Taiwanese cuisine to remain visible and popular, a linkage of Taiwanese cultural and culinary identities may be needed. The continued popularity of other foreign cuisines could be a source of emulation here.

American diners in Tokyo don’t necessarily emphasize the taste of their food, but rather paint a dynamic and authentic picture of an American lifestyle to the Japanese customer. The presentation of space and atmosphere is a key element to this subtle seduction, as French restaurants in Tokyo have shown with their refined and elegant interiors.

The establishment of such an explicit connection between food and culture could work out for Taiwanese cuisine as it continues to become more widespread in Japan and the rest of the world.

As more Japanese travel to Taiwan, the understanding of Taiwanese food has gone beyond the taste of bubble tea to more cultural aspects. If more people become familiar with the visual presentation of night markets, the idea of a slow sit-down breakfast, and even the religious roots of Taiwanese vegetarianism, Taiwanese cuisine could develop a sustainable reputation in the world. That genuine interest in Taiwanese culture, then, would allow Taiwanese cuisine to survive the sometimes-inevitable culinary boom and bust cycles.

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TNL Editor: Jeremy Van der Haegen (@thenewslensintl)

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